‘Nauhakhawni‘ is the act of reciting nauhas: nauha being a lament about the tragedies Muslims faced at Karbala. A Nauhakhawn is someone who is particularly gifted in this art and with his mournful recitals, is able to incite intense emotion at what is typically a Shiite majlis during the grieving month of Muharram.
Syed Nadeem Sarwar is one such individual. But he is no ordinary artist. Nadeem Sarwar is the most pre-eminent Nauhakhawn in Pakistan’s history. He first started recording his nauhas in 1980 but has been reciting since the age of four. Now, he has over 400 recitals and more than 70 crore views on YouTube. He has performed in over 60 countries – USA, UK, Canada as well as places in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East – in 14 different languages.
Nadeem Sarwar also encouraged his two sons, Ali Shanawar and Ali Jee, to begin reciting nauhas at an early age. They have now been performing this art for 10-12 years. At present, the trio has 5.07 million followers combined on social media.
But numbers and statistics don’t encompass everything that Nadeem Sarwar has achieved and what he represents. For me personally, he has played a huge role in my life as both an artist and a human being. He is one of very few religious leaders I have come across who have promoted the ideals of humanity and respect for others above all else, even religion.
How was he able to capture the hearts of so many people? What makes his nauhas so special?
No artist in the history of Nauhakhawni has released as many albums or been so revered and prominent as Nadeem Sarwar. In 2006, he was given the title ‘Safeer-e-Aza’: Ambassador of Azadari (Azadari meaning lament and mourning), one of the highest accolades an artist and leader can ever receive.
I saw him perform live for the first time in 2007 at Muhammadi Masjid, and from then on I was captivated by his energy and passion. Just a boy of 13, I would fight my way through huge jostling crowds just to catch a glimpse of him. And when I finally met Nadeem Sarwar, I knew there was more to him than just the art of Nauhakhawni. On that occasion I witnessed him asking for a thread and needle to repair his shirt, by himself. This is when he taught me my first important lesson: humility above all else.
Nadeem Sarwar’s nauhas resonate with his audience because he breathes life into them. He not only speaks about the tragedies of Karbala but also emphasizes the importance of embodying the lessons learnt from them: resilience, faith, and choosing good over evil.
His art is respected all over the world, not just because of his words and melodies but because of the spirituality that thrums beneath them. His art and his teachings have shaped me into who I am today. Because of him, I learnt that the act of Nauhakhawni goes beyond the remembrance of grief and tragedy. Performed with pure intentions, it becomes a spiritual link that helps fortify you into becoming your best self.
Forty years on, Nadeem Sarwar remains devoted to his art. He released his 41st album four days ago, featuring both him and his sons. The album is trending number 1 on YouTube, and already has 8.3 million views.